Welcome to the discussion!

As the articles below indicate, for a number of years I have being trying to understand the changing concept and practice of mission.

My search has moved progressively from ‘Is there still a need for mission?’ to ‘What should the new focus for mission be?’ and finally to ‘Where can we find examples for this new direction?’

Some progress has been made but the effort to get this far has brought up a wider question. Why are so few people doing the practical reflection and research that is necessary to bring mission out of its present decline?

Theologians produce books on the academic aspects of mission but those actively engaged in cross-cultural mission are not writing about the real-life issues that face them. In this age of dramatic changes most businesses and NGOs are plowing resources into research for their next step so why are Christian missionaries, especially Catholics, not doing so?

I’m sure there are many answers to this complex question but by naming them, one by one, we may get a better idea of where the problem lies and what can de done about it.

Have you any ideas to share on this topic?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A Great Time to be a Missionary!

            Some say that this is the best of times to be a missionary and others say that mission is finished, and both are right.
            Diminishing vocations and less need for traditional apostolates indicate that mission, as we knew it, is finished. But there is a new buzz in mission circles about the energizing possibilities being opened for the whole Church by a wider understanding of the missionary task. 
            Vatican ll gave notice of this new vision but it took time for the emerging ideas to be clarified and prioritized.  Fortunately, we now have books like Francis Oborji’s Concepts of Mission to help steer us though the various dimensions identified: proclamation, dialogue, human liberation, inculturation and service of God’s reign. Oborji is credible because he is both open-minded and professor of missiology at the Pontifical Urban University
            One of his insights is that, “North Atlantic theology is liveliest today where it is fertilized by the writing and developments of the global South…. We are a world Church in the midst of a world Christian movement.”
            This is also a key theme of Stephen Bevan SVD of CTU, Chicago. In Constants in Context, which he co-authored with his colleague Roger Schroeder, they see mission as, “Taking the church beyond itself into history, into cultures, into people’s lives, beckoning it constantly to ‘cross frontiers’.”
            Catholic and Protestants writers alike are reminding us that the Western Church can be revitalized only by looking outside itself and recognizing that it is just a part of the world Church, not the whole of it. The Western form of Christianity with which we are familiar today is a departure from the practices of the first millennium. Only in the 1500s were the last tribes of Europe converted and the Church associated with Europe.
Earlier the Eastern Churches (like the Syrian) were larger and showed greater diversity by presenting themselves in the languages and forms of the cultures they encountered. It was only after they were virtually wiped out by Islam that variety diminished and the predominance of the Roman Church, especially its liturgies and theologies, became a reality. If you wish to find out more on how this happened, read Philip Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity.
Another influential writer who reminds us of what it means to be a universal Church is Lamin Sannah. He was reared in the Islamic tradition in Gambia, became a Catholic and is Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Yale.
His message is that Christianity does not belong to any one culture and will never spread as long as it is tied to Westernization. Christian scripture is not confined to any one language and this has led to its being translated into many tongues. In the process scripture was enriched by the religious insights of those countries. It was only later that an imperial mindset sought to confine people to a single way of thinking, celebrating and behaving as Catholics. He draws lessons from the Islamic interaction with Christianity in Africa, the contribution of Charismatic Christians, the African rejection of colonial versions of Christianity and recent events in a very nationalistic China
In Latin America, liberation theologians sought to take up the dialogue with context by bringing the message into the lives of the people and in doing so they encountered the striking vitality of folk religion.

            As Andrew Walls in his The Missionary Movement in Christian History says, “What is changing is not the task, but the means and mode.” Drawing from a wide scope of examples, Protestant and Catholic, he shows that cross-cultural transmission is integral to Christian faith, it not only spreads the good news to others but the inter-action enriches the universal church by revealing the meaning and significance of Christ in ways that were never guessed before.
Most older missionaries were not trained for the challenges of mutual enrichment-through-mission but they have picked up much relevant experience along the way. Younger missionaries had more opportunities to avail of the relevant new scholarship but often they were not encouraged to see context as central to their task so they came to regard it as optional. Providentially there is now no shortage of resources to help us clarify our task and re-equip ourselves for it.
A good starting point is to re-read the works of Mircea Eliade who reminds us that our ancestors, long before the Great Religions, showed their respect for sacred time and space in rituals, myths and symbols that remain a key to our religious thinking today. They are the background against which we can compare our own Christian practices with those of other religions.
Folk religions provide the clearest examples of this universal human attitude to the sacred and for anyone involved in mission the most valuable dialogue can be with the local folk religion. Each country has studies of its own traditions but even a book like John Lagerwey’s  China: A Religious State, illustrates for anyone interested in the subject the tension that is inevitable between state or official religions (such as Confucianism in China) and the local deities of the rural majority (such as in Daoism and Shamanism in China). The history of Daoism also shows how religions tend to become mirror images of the national bureaucracy with minor gods reporting to senior gods and so on up the supreme emperor god. The manner in which Christianity took on the trappings of the Roman Empire, and the contrast between its ‘official’ and popular expressions, are other examples.
Finally, for those wishing to understand the world in which we live, the works on secularization by Charles Taylor provide valuable insights. Taylor traces the historical breaking away of secular society from the ancient sacred world view to the extent that Western secular society now rejects the relevance and values of religion. However, he insists that religion has a key role to play in society if it can accept and adapt to the new reality.
The reason I have quoted from so many books is not just to share what I myself have being reading but to indicate another reason why it is so exciting to be involved in mission today. We now have available books, tapes, lectures and seminars on the questions about which we always needed to know more. With the click of a keyboard, even Google will provide useful information.    
However, I have found little about this new exciting prospect for mission in recent Columban meetings, documents or writings. If we have a future as a missionary society it is by involvement in this new openness to other cultures and traditions and the nourishment they can provide for our own faith understanding. Of course, our involvement in cross-cultural mission is not just for our own sake but to bring the Good News to others. Now we are being made aware of a new way of doing this and at the same time restoring the universality and passion of the world church.   
Remember, there was once a moment in human history when transport changed from horses to engines. However, there were those who believed that this happened only because there were not enough horses. We are at such a moment.
                                                Hugh MacMahon. 5/3/11

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